QUESTION: Considering how violently anti-Semitic Martin Luther was in the 1500s and how he encouraged others to be that way, how does a Jew deal with those from the Christian branch that bears his name?
-- H via email
ANSWER: When we own a religion or a secular culture, we own all of it, the good and the bad. When any tradition, religious or secular, is hundreds or thousands of years old, one can expect that mixed in with its eternally valid teachings of compassion and forgiveness, there inevitably will be teachings and practices that reflect the bigotry and blindness of older and less enlightened times.
For example, America is a great culture that has enshrined freedom for many, but American culture also includes a history of slavery and bigotry against many groups struggling to be free.
Revelation, like all of human learning, is progressive and able to change based upon the highest and truest and purest teachings of our revealed traditions. We must never change because we are convinced by some passing intellectual fad. We must change only because we realize that in many important ways, we have not had the pleasure of properly and fully understanding what God really meant to teach us about living together and about being saved from sin.
Martin Luther died in 1546 at a time when Jews in Europe were still struggling to be granted simple civil rights. He lived during a time when anti-Jewish bigotry was deeply rooted in European culture. At the heart of this European anti-Semitism was the theological problem that Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and therefore would not convert to Christianity. Because of the belief that there is no salvation outside of Christianity, Jews were consigned to an underclass without civil rights until the 19th century.
In his early writings, Luther was actually supportive of Jews in the hopes they would see the light and convert. When that proved impossible he succumbed to his own prejudices and those of his secular overlords and wrote some terrible screeds, most notably in 1543, "On the Jews and Their Lies." This virulently anti-Semitic work inspired attacks on the Jewish community in the 1580s and sadly also inspired later European anti-Semites.
"On the Jews and Their Lies" remains a stain on Luther forever, but it is not a stain on Lutherans forever. All the denominations of Lutheranism have clearly and sincerely rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and have repudiated Luther's writings on the Jews and Judaism.
I am also proud to remind you that this is the 15th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Catholic Church in Vatican II absolving the Jewish people of all responsibility for the death of Jesus and repudiating anti-Semitism.
I believe that the transformation of Lutheran and Catholic teachings about my people and my faith constitute two of the most impressive examples of how large institutions and ancient traditions can purify themselves from prejudice and move to a future where, although we remember all of our past, we venerate only those parts that teach us love and respect for all.
On a personal level, I also want to encourage you to consider the story of Martin Luther and the Jews as a cautionary tale for each of you in your own life. Many of us have been taught by bigoted relatives and friends and clergy who, though they loved us, taught us to hate some other group of people. Our task is to find a way to love only the good they taught us. Think of an orange. The only way to eat an orange is to throw away the bitter skin and eat the sweet fruit inside. That is how we must come to learn to love even our very flawed teachers.